Every religion and spiritual tradition has meditation in some form. Breathing exercises, quiet reflection, singing, chanting, mantras, prayer, psychedelic ceremonies – these are some of the oldest forms of biohacking. They’re technologies for reaching altered states.
Gratitude is an altered state. Forgiveness is an altered state. Flow (an athlete might call it “being in the zone”), a sense of oneness with the people around you, radical creativity – all are altered states, and we humans have been pursuing them for thousands of years. In these altered states, tremendous feats of human performance are possible.
Whether or not you consider yourself religious or spiritual, it’s worth learning how to control your brain so you can reach these states of higher performance. The question is, how do you get there?
Here’s a practical guide to accessing altered states, and a discussion of the many benefits that come with them.
Your analytical vs. intuitive mind
Recent studies show that analytical thinking blocks emotion and empathy, and vice versa [1,2]. In other words, you have two modes: the rational, analytical mind, and the free-flowing, intuitive one, and you switch between them.
Most people walk around with their brain in analytical mode. You work, you solve problems, you think about the future or past, you plan the practical aspects of your life, and so on. The analytical mind is a valuable tool, and it’s important to hone it, but it’s only half of the equation. On the other side of the coin is empathy, joy, creativity, inner calm, and a sense of oneness with those around you.
Most of history’s great innovators understood the importance of tapping into flow states, and credit much of their brilliance partly to analytical thinking, but also to the open creativity that comes from silencing the rational mind.
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
– Albert Einstein
“My brain is only a receiver. In the universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength, inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know it exists.”
– Nikola Tesla
“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.”
– Leonardo Da Vinci
Rational thinking is essential. Quieting your analytical mind, though, opens you up to performance-enhancing altered states. Here are a few ways to reach them.
Meditation is the most accessible way to silence your mind. It’s free and you can do it anywhere, anytime. You can meditate right now. You don’t need to go to a church (although plenty of people choose to). You don’t need to meditate exactly the way someone has taught you to do it, either.
Meditation allows you to tap into a state of inner stillness that you can keep with you throughout your day. No surprise, then, that meditation increases creativity , curbs stress and anxiety, and increases lasting happiness . When you access inner calm, you become less reactive. Your own mind’s negativity dwindles. You walk around with an inner source of happiness and relaxation that the outside world can’t touch. The effect strengthens with regular practice.
Here are three simple ways to meditate:
- Observation. Sit in a quiet place, close your eyes, take a step back from your mind, and watch your thoughts. Don’t judge them or pursue them; simply let them come and go, as you watch. There are two distinct entities here: you, the calm watcher, and your mind, the source of your thoughts.
- Silence. Sit, close your eyes, and listen to the silence around you. If things get noisy, focus on the silence between the noise, or behind the noise.
- Breath. Sit, close your eyes, and inhale deeply into your belly, then slowly exhale. Focus on the sensation of your breath filling your body and then emptying out.
Feel these out, or try your own technique – do whatever gives you a sense of inner calm. When you notice your mind wandering, simply return to your meditation. Start by meditating for 5 minutes every day. Consistency is more important than meditating for a long time.
The most common complaint I hear about meditation is, “I don’t think I’m doing it correctly.” A bit of guidance from a teacher can put you on right path, especially when you’re starting out. zivaMIND offers excellent online meditation classes. Emily, the founder, has been on Bulletproof Radio; she has a wonderful sense of humor about the whole process of meditation and spirituality.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) training
HRV training teaches you to consciously synchronize your brainwaves and heartbeat, which puts you into a state of calm focus. It’s the same state you get from meditation, but HRV training gives you real-time feedback, so you know when you’re improving and you can track your progress.
With enough HRV training (or normal meditation), you can get to a point where your inner calm spreads to those around you. Studies show that people with especially high HRV can affect the brain scans of others in the room with them . Followers of spiritual gurus often report that their guru can make them relax with a single gaze. We don’t fully understand how this happens yet, but it’s real, and worthy of scientific inquiry. I’ve experienced it at monasteries in Tibet and Nepal, fasting in caves in Sedona, with shamans in Peru, and with Alberto Villoldo, a friend and Bulletproof Radio guest.
You can train your heart rate variability and track your results with an HRV biofeedback sensor. Feedback lets you know what you’re doing right and allows you to build that inner calm faster than you would with normal meditation.
Float tanks, also called sensory deprivation tanks, eliminate nearly all sensory input. You’re suspended in a lightproof, soundproof chamber, in water with more than 1000 lbs. of magnesium salt, which allows you to float without touching anything. The water and air are both exactly your body temperature.
When you’re in a float tank, you don’t see, hear, feel, smell, or taste anything. You lose all sense of time. The sensation is that you’re in empty, infinite space, with nothing but your own mind.
A typical float session is 90-120 minutes long. Your mind usually rebels at first. Expect thoughts like, “This is boring. This is stupid. Get out. You’re uncomfortable.” But if you stick it out, at a certain point your mind lets go. In the ensuing stillness, people report everything from coming up with life-changing ideas and working through creative blocks to having psychedelic or out-of-body experiences. I have a float tank at my house, and I use it regularly.
If you’re in a major city, there’s probably find a float center near you. You can read more about the science of sensory deprivation here.
40 Years of Zen
I’ve spent time meditating at Zen Buddhist monasteries. The typical way it goes is that you sit on a cushion and meditate for a year, until one day the zen master looks at you and raises an eyebrow. That’s how you know you’re making progress.
You can take the long, meandering path, meditating daily for 20 to 40 years, until you’re an advanced Zen master. And by the way, a Zen master at a monastery can look at you and tell, at a glance, if you’re an advanced meditator, because there’s an energetic thing you carry that they can pick up on. It’s pretty cool, but it takes a lifetime to attain.
I’m a lazy, lazy meditator. I prefer my feedback at a thousand times a second, not once a year. That’s why I do 40 Years of Zen – it measures your brainwaves and teaches you to rewire your brain in real time, with data in front of you that tells you what’s working and what isn’t. With that kind of guidance, you can train for 5 days and walk out with a brain resembling that of a lifelong Zen monk.
I’m working to make 40 Years of Zen more affordable; my ultimate goal is to make it so accessible that students can do it in school. If it’s out of your price range now, any of the other techniques in this article are still powerful (I would say essential) ways to strengthen your biology.
Whether you’re meditating, praying, or floating in salt water without access to your senses, it’s worth it to learn how to quiet your mind. It takes a few minutes a day and the returns are huge. For more on flow states and how to reach them, check out this podcast with Steven Kotler. And if you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe below for weekly content that teaches you how to upgrade your body and mind. Thanks for reading and have a great week!